University of Rochester economic historian Stanley Engerman died on Thursday, May 11. When I got to Rochester as an assistant professor in 1975, I had already heard of him because of his 1974 book on slavery with Robert Fogel, Time on the Cross. I had first heard about the book not in academic circles—I was a Ph.D. student at UCLA at the time—but from a column on the book in the Wall Street Journal. I would bet it was by my favorite WSJ editor at the time, Lindley H. Clark Jr.. But later in various UCLA seminars his book was discussed. Although I don’t remember the full context, I distinctly remember the late Axel Leijonhufvud disagreeing with someone’s assertion about the Fogel/Engerman findings. Axel said, “The data in that book are shot through with incentives.” Axel’s point, which he took from F/E, was that even with slavery, slave owners often had to give incentives such as extra food in order to get slaves to produce more output. That matters for the story I’m about to tell.

Mark Skousen has a nice remembrance of being a research assistant for F/E while they were working on the book in 1971. HT2 Tyler Cowen.

I have my own memory of an interaction with Stan. In the spring of 1977 (I think), I was teaching a short course titled “Labor Market Institutions” in the U. of R. Graduate School of Management. There were about 18 to 20 students in the class, 4 of whom were black. The main two books for the class were Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics and Gary Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination. I used these because the professor who had taught it before me, Ron Schmidt, told me that they had worked well for the course. He was a master teacher and so I followed his lead. (I also added a fair number of articles and a segment on Black Codes from W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America.) Over the break before the class started, I read the books cover to cover. I worked through Becker’s math and liked his book a lot, but I loved  Sowell’s book. I got so excited that I wrote a long letter during the break to a friend in which I quoted some of the highlights from Sowell.

In working my way through both books, I realized that one of the themes that emerged was that government at all levels—local, state, and federal—had shafted black people and that the “shafting” had by no means ended with the end of slavery.

So in my introduction on the first day of class, I told the students that that was one of the sub-themes and that, in light of that, I wondered why more black people weren’t libertarians. I quickly had 4 students paying attention to everything I said.

The second week of class, when we were covering some of the early chapters of Sowell’s book, I took issue with something Sowell wrote about slavery. I don’t remember Sowell’s exact point, but the F/E findings on marginal incentives contradicted it. I got pushback from a lot of the students but especially from all 4 black students. I had the sense that some of them even thought I was downplaying the horror of slavery even though I wasn’t.

I could feel the good will in the class slipping away and I wanted to get it back.

So I walked across campus to visit Stan in the economics department. We had seen each other in seminars occasionally and he had always been friendly. I told him of my predicament and asked if he would come and give a 30-minute talk on the findings in Time on the Cross that related to the issue the students and I had discussed. Stanley was a very affable guy and so I thought I should warn him. I said that there was a chance that the students would transfer some of their hostility from me to him and that, actually, I was hoping they would. He laughed and said that he would come and give the talk.

So he did and it went well. There was some hostility but it gradually dissipated during his talk as he showed his expertise and handled all the questions.

I still remember one of his answers. One of the students had asked, “You said you studied the records of plantations that had slaves. How many plantations did you study?”

Stanley answered, “80” and, as he saw the dismissive look on the face of the questioner, he added, “Which is 79 more than the number of plantations that most other scholars studied.”

I left the U. of R. in 1979 and never kept in touch with Stanley. I wish now that I had written him to thank him again.